Natural history museums are a place of wonder and curiosity. The displays of exotic, commonplace, and extinct animal species are often beautifully crafted to give the appearance of life to these stuffed creatures. But behind the display cases, Austrian photographer Klaus Pichler found a different kind of animal world. Don’t Take Pictures’ Editor-in-Chief Kat Kiernan interviewed Pichler about his photographs of the hidden places in the Natural History Museum Vienna.
Don’t Take Pictures: Many photographers have photographed natural history museum displays. Rather than photograph the exhibits for public viewing, Skeletons in the Closet concentrates on Natural History Museum Vienna’s unseen spaces—the museum’s offices and storage facilities and the display animals that live there. Tell us how this project took shape.
Klaus Pichler: Strangely, when I started my project, I did not have a clue that museum displays had already been a prominent topic for photographers. I did not know any piece of work with that topic back then and learned much later that there already existed really important series by Candida Höfer, Richard Barnes and so on. I have not had a photographic or art history education and I have to admit that there were and still are gaps in my photo history knowledge. Honestly, I am glad in retrospect because I think I would have stopped my series before I had even started it.
Anyway, the starting point of the series was a coincidence: I passed by the museum at night and caught a glimpse of a museum’s room: an average office space with a stuffed antelope in a corner. This awoke my attention and I got in contact with the museums administration, asking if it would be possible to have a look in the non-public spaces of the museum for a possible photo series. They agreed and invited me to a tour with the vice-director, and I was blown away immediately by the things and spaces I saw. I started the project and returned to the museum for a photo shoot every two weeks or so for a period of three years.
DTP: Your photographs have an absurdist humor in them. The display animals appear to interact with one another and their environments, for example the badger looking at his reflection in a mirror held by a monkey. I understand that you did not stage these scenes. How did you encounter these comical still lifes?
KP: When I got the permission to enter the non-public areas of the museum, the thing which fascinated me most was the fact that these areas are far from the meticulous order of the exhibition areas. Here, the exhibits are placed according to storage reasons, grouped in an order to save space. Besides that, the scientific departments and the collections are in a permanent state of change—exhibits are brought in from other departments, are placed for scientific examination or are prepared for transportation. Combined with the special spatial situation, the historical interior design and the sometimes-improvised staging situations, these factors somehow 'produced' these absurd stagings for my photographic approach. My main task was to return to the different departments of the museum over and over and to look out for new settings and encounters. Of course, staging the scenes myself would also have been possible, but I considered it as not necessary because they just happened from themselves—in this way, it felt much more authentic to me and much closer to the everyday life of a museum's scientific department.
DTP: There is a correlation between photography and natural history displays. Louis Daguerre is known in photography circles as the inventor of the daguerrerotype and one of the founders of photography, but he also invented the diorama. How do you view the relationship between the photographic medium and the display of natural history?
KP: In my opinion, there are two parallels which are inherent in both the diorama and photography: to direct the looking of the viewer and, more important, the question of idealization. In photography, it is all about finding the right angle, the perfect frame, the best light and the decisive moment in order to freeze this moment for a picture and to immortalize it through photographic qualities. In the construction of dioramas, it is quite similar, although one can use one more dimension and can take as much time as needed to stage an exhibit in a simulated 'natural' environment. Ultimately, the final result is quite the same: a 'picture', no matter if flat or three-dimensional.
DTP: Vienna is a beautiful city and one of Europe’s most vibrant cultural capitals. Having grown up visiting the city and now as a resident, how have museums influenced your life and arts education?
KP: Although I was born in Vienna, I did not grow up in the city but in the countryside. Therefore, the visits to Vienna have always been highlights for me as a kid, and the Natural History Museum has been my favorite museum. I have always been passionate for nature and I loved spending time in the endless halls of the museum which were filled with exotic or even extinct creatures. These days have definitely sparked my enthusiasm for natural sciences and the environment, ultimately leading to my studies of Landscape Architecture. Besides that, especially in my teenage years, the Viennese art museums and—after I moved to Vienna in 1996—the underground music scene of the city became important for me. Unintentionally, when I encountered photography in my twenties, it felt like the perfect tool for combining all my interests and bringing them in as topics of my photography. Since this all happened in pre-internet times, the cultural and museums landscape of Vienna were permanent sources of inspiration which also encouraged me to follow my passion and become a full-time photographer in 2007.
DTP: Many natural history museums today are reexamining their displays and texts to address how they discuss topics such as colonization, racism, and environmental issues. How do your photographs address this shift in the role of natural history museums?
KP: First of all, I think that it is a really necessary task for every museum to look back to the past and to develop a post-colonial focus on the museum, the provenience of the exhibits and the institution museum itself. Therefore, I really appreciate the development of the socio-anthropologic and historic research in the past years, examining the dreadful issues of natural museums' history.
In my series, one question became central for me, namely the question how in God’s name all the exhibits have landed here? You can't avoid being struck by this question when standing in a giant subterranean depot surrounded by hundreds of taxidermied mammals from all ends of the world. Especially when you start to read the labels and find out that most of the exhibits are historic specimens, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Consequently, I started to research the circumstances under which the collection has been gathered, revealing a tragic and bloody history of colonial cruelty, especially when it comes to the anthropologic and ethnographic collections.
I tried to include these facts in my series in two layers: on the one hand, by photographing them in absurd and kind of 'lost' surroundings, the question of the provenience of the objects becomes imminent. On the other hand, I wanted to depict the animals as vivid as possible in order to give them back their dignity and to show them not as collectible objects, but as personalities.
DTP: When visiting the museum, it can be easy to forget that these animals were once living. Your photographs often create a sense of personification, giving life to these animals long-dead. How has creating this work influenced your thinking about taxidermy? How did you address the concept of death in your pictures?
KP: One fact that has always been puzzled me in the museums’ halls is observing the children (including me when I was a kid, too) and their way of exploring the museum. In their perception, death is entirely absent and the approach the exhibits as if they were alive and well. In fact, a natural museum is a highly morbid institution, displaying an array of corpses and remains. This perception has definitely influenced my photographic approach because I thought it would interesting to borrow the kids' eyes and to perceive the taxidermied animals as if they were alive. Especially in hindsight that the audience of my photography would be adults, who were of course aware that they were looking at depictions of death.
DTP: You exhibited Skeletons in the Closet in the Natural History Museum itself. What was the response to the pictures from visitors and from the museum’s employees? Did seeing your photographs of the space inside the space change how you viewed the museum, your work, or both?
KP: For the visitors, the exhibition of course provided some kind of a look behind the scenes of the museum itself. I suppose that this fact was important for the museum staff when they offered me to exhibit the series, given the fact that it is not the ordinary glimpse behind the scenes. What was more interesting for me was how the museums staff reacted on the images, especially the ones which were made in their departments. Most of them were really surprised about the photographic qualities of their workplaces and also did not have a clue about the absurdity of the scenes they are surrounded by in the everyday work life. This strengthened my impression that the scenes really happened by chance and were not created intentionally.
For me, the exhibition in the museum above all had sentimental value because it felt as if a circle was closing: I am sure if I would have known back in my childhood days that I would have an exhibition in the museum, I would not have believed it. Therefore, this is by far the exhibition which means the most to me.
This article first appeared in Don’t Take Pictures Issue 13, The Museum Issue.